An uphill battle for an underground issue

Brooke Wisdom

May 1, 2010

An uphill battle for an underground issue

After another tragic coal mine explosion, the aggregates industry prepares for increased scrutiny despite its own increased safety record.

By Tina Grady Barbaccia, News and Digital Editor

Following the latest coal mine tragedy in West Virginia in early April, the aggregates industry is preparing for increased scrutiny and the potential Congressional and regulatory fallout that may result from this disaster.

Twenty-nine people are dead after an explosion at the Massey Energy Co. Upper Big Branch coal mine in Whitesville, W.Va., Don Blankenship, the company’s chairman and CEO, confirms. These are updated numbers from Blankenship’s original confirmation of seven people dead and 19 unaccounted for, and a secondary report that 25 were dead and four were still missing.

Massey Energy Co., says its focus right now is attending to the families to ensure they have the support they need. “We mourn the deaths of our members at Massey Energy,” Blankenship said in a written statement from the company. “I personally met with many of the families…and share their grief at this very painful time. I want to offer my condolences to the miners’ families who lost loved ones at Upper Big Branch. And I want to thank the rescue teams and the Massey members who continue to work hard on behalf of our miners and their families.

“We continue to work diligently with state and federal authorities to try to determine the cause of this tragic explosion as quickly as possible,” Blankenship said.

Immediately following the incident, U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis issued a statement through the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) in which she said: “My heartfelt condolences go out to the families, co-workers, and communities that are mourning the loss of lives at the Upper Big Branch South Mine in Whitesville, W.Va. My thoughts and prayers are with them.” Solis pledged “that their deaths will not be in vain,” that MSHA “will investigate this tragedy, and take action. Miners should never have to sacrifice their lives for their livelihood.”

The coal industry is certainly reeling from this latest incident, and it’s also possible that it will affect the aggregates industry. The entire mining industry has struggled with its public image, but after the tragic Sago coal mine explosion and Aracoma Coal Alma No.1 coal mine incident, both in 2006, and the Utah and Indiana coal mine incidents in 2007, legislation and federal regulations have been rampant and mining has been brought more into the public eye. And such could be the case following this tragedy.

The National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association (NSSGA) is preparing for this. NSSGA spokeswoman Peggy Disney told Aggregates Manager, and is telling other media agencies, that because the accident didn’t occur in the aggregates production industry, the organization doesn’t feel it is productive to speculate on what Congress or the regulatory agencies might or might not do. However, NSSGA senior staffers have met in anticipation of what regulatory issues may arise from the incident.

NSSGA says it is monitoring statements by public officials, members of Congress, members of the administration, and others to see where they’re headed. The organization says it already has lobbyists and its members on Capitol Hill re-educating key staff and members on the differences between aggregates production and coal mining. NSSGA says it’s aware that Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Education & Labor committee, has sent two committee investigators to the Big Branch scene to investigate. In addition to the organization’s ongoing education efforts, NSSGA says it will look at fixes, such as aggregates exemption, to any potential new mining legislation or regulations.

Aggregates Industries Fatalities

Rep. Nick Joe Rahall (D-W.Va.), in whose district the mine site is, said he’s ready to write new mining laws, if necessary, according to NSSGA. At Aggregates Manager press time in mid-April, NSSGA said extensive hearings are expected soon.

Preliminary data from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) released in early January indicated that mine fatalities in 2009 fell to an all-time low for the second straight year. According to Joseph A. Main, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, a key factor contributing to the record low number of deaths includes enforcement of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 (which succeeded the 1969 Mine Act) and continued implementation of the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response (MINER) Act, enacted by Congress in 2006.

U.S. Aggregates Operations Source: National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association (NSSGA) and National Asphalt Pavement Association (NAPA)

In 2009, MSHA assessed 173,000 civil penalties for violations of mine safety and health legal requirements. The dollar amount of assessed penalties totaled $140.7 million in 2009. Twenty-five “flagrant violations” were assessed at a total of $3.4 million. That means $137.3 million were not “flagrant violations.”

Springfield Underground President and NSSGA Chairman Louis Griesemer told WY3-News in Springfield, Mo. (, “What we’re concerned about is they’ll pass broader legislation that will impact our industry adversely, where we’re already seeing increases in safety and not being recognized for the good job we’re doing.”

Griesemer says he thinks that the legislation developed after increased violations and several coal mine incidents is too wide in scope. He says the focus should be on coal mines, not on aggregate operations.

“We think it’s not appropriate for our industry because we don’t think we’re the problem,” Griesemer told the news station. “The type of material we’re extracting does not produce explosive gases like methane. The structure of limestone mines is a lot stronger and we’re not as deep as a coal mine.”

Coal mining and aggregate mining are very different, and sometimes the various types of mining aren’t differentiated and a “one-size-fits-all” mentality unintentionally creates unnecessary and unfair burdens on the regulated community. And despite safety improvements in the aggregates mining sector, regulation has continued after mining tragedies regardless of the mining industry sector.

Nine ways underground aggregates facilities differ from underground coal mines

The National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association (NSSGA) has been disseminating this list of “talking points” about how aggregates mining — both surface and underground — is different from coal mines.

1. Extracted product is non-combustible, non-flammable; no flammable gases such as methane are present;

2. MSHA-approved (permissible) equipment is not required in stone facilities such that regular automobiles, trucks, and loaders can be used;

3. Extraction methods create large open spaces for access by large equipment; large openings accommodate emergency equipment used by non-facility emergency services;

4. More stable mineral formations resulting in stable mine roofs; minimized needs for additional roof supports;

5. Emergency escape and access easier because of large spaces in mine;

6. Most are only a few hundred feet deep; horizontal tunnel access permits large mobile equipment to easily enter facility;

7. During emergency, more equipment choices available to operators because reduced hazard permits used of “un-approved” equipment;

8. Minimal need for certified mine rescue teams because local fire departments, or emergency services, are able to respond; and

9. Due to size of large open spaces, and mining methods, mechanical mine ventilation usually not required or is minimal; natural ventilation works well.

Sink or swim

A Knife River truck driver testifies before Congress that when it comes to a new highway bill, we’re just treading water — and it’s just a matter of time before we may drown.

Knife River driver Joyce Fisk put a face to the U.S. construction materials industry during her testimony on Capitol Hill.

Not having a new long-term surface transportation bill is like diving into water without ever having swum before, says Joyce Fisk, a belly dump driver for Minnesota-based Knife River Corp.

Fisk of Almelund, Minn., testified before the Federal Transportation and Infrastructure Committee at the end of March about the critical need for long-term federal highway funding. She was invited to testify by committee Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) after meeting him on the Minnesota I-35 paving job last summer. The job was funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a.k.a. the stimulus, which Fisk credits for keeping her and her husband, Gene, working. Both are truck drivers for Knife River — Central Minnesota Division based in St. Cloud, Minn.

But the temporary fixes — the stimulus and the temporary funding extension for the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) through the end of this year — won’t be able to sustain the industry. “It’s one thing to have an extension, but there is no security with it,” Fisk tells Aggregates Manager. “You can extend all you want, but it’s just a Band-Aid. You need a permanent fix. You can’t expect companies to go out and buy equipment or start a new business if there is nothing to rely on.”

She says the stimulus was good for a jumpstart to the economy, but that we need something to take things further.

“We need a long-term dedicated highway bill that will allow small companies a chance to rebuild and provide real jobs that will last,” Fisk said in her testimony. “Short-term bills are good for keeping a few companies afloat. A new funding bill can ease the congestion in big cities and heavily traveled highways. Funding for light rail transit can save time, money, and help clean up our environment.”

Fisk says she just represents a small part of those who would benefit from a dedicated highway bill such as the nearly half-trillion dollar, six-year bill that the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) is calling for and that Oberstar backs.

According to the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), public works spending is only up 2 percent. There are about 41 states with budget deficient problems that are spending stimulus money instead of state money.

The drop in spending “is clearly a barometer of what will happen if we can’t get reauthorization passed again,” Bill Schneider, president and CEO of Knife River Corp, tells Aggregates Manager.

Schneider says it’s very important for Congress to see the positive impact that the stimulus has made for Joyce and her family. “Having someone like Joyce testify before Congress means so much more than a CEO like myself standing up there,” Schneider says. “She is the face of the economic stimulus. Joyce is the face for many Knife River employees who have feared unemployment or who have already lost their jobs.”

Schneider says Fisk “represents thousands of reasons why we can no longer ignore America’s infrastructure. Strong highways and a healthy transportation network are the foundations for our country’s commerce. Funding the construction industry is a definite way to put Americans back to work and to create real value.”

From a governmental perspective, Schneider notes, there isn’t a better time to get the most value for infrastructure spending. “Competition right now is brutal,” he says. “Numbers and margins are very, very thin. The government will get the biggest bang for the buck, so it all lines up. It just makes sense to put the money into the highway bill.”

MSHA announces final rule for high-voltage continuous mining machines

The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) has announced the publication of a final rule in the Federal Register revising the agency’s electrical design requirements for the approval of high-voltage continuous mining machines. The rule also establishes additional safety standards to address the machines’ installation, use, and maintenance in underground coal mines. MSHA’s existing standards do not address high-voltage continuous mining machines. Although this equipment has been used in underground coal mines since the late 1990s, mine operators must submit a petition for modification to use it.

Since 1997, MSHA has granted 52 PFMs — with specific conditions — to allow mine operators to use high-voltage continuous mining machines underground. Currently, there are 27 high-voltage continuous mining machines operating under PFMs in eight underground mines. Significant improvements in the design and manufacturing technology of high-voltage components provide for the use of high-voltage continuous mining machines with enhanced safety protection against fires, explosions, and shock hazards.

“Compliance with this regulation will reduce the potential for electrical-related fatalities and injuries associated with high-voltage continuous mining machine use,” said Joseph A. Main, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health. “It also will reduce the need to file a petition for modification.”

Key features of the final rule include the following:

• Provides for MSHA approval of high-voltage continuous mining machines, including better design and construction criteria and improved ground-fault protection. Approval ensures that the systems will not introduce an ignition hazard when operated in potentially explosive atmospheres.

• Establishes mandatory electrical safety standards for proper installation of high-voltage continuous mining machines, electrical and mechanical protection of equipment, handling trailing cables, and performing electrical work.

• Preserves safety and health protections for miners while facilitating the use of advanced equipment designs.

• Provides greater protection against electrical shock, cable overheating, fire hazards, and back injuries and other sprains caused by handling trailing cables.

• Increases safety requirements to eliminate or minimize unsafe work and repair practices, such as handling lighter cables.

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